In February of 2015, I lost my first cat and best friend Squish to cancer. I knew I would grieve, but I had no idea how deeply the grief would affect me. It was the kindness of the Cats of Instagram (COI) community that helped me survive her loss.
In the years after, I have tried to repay that kindness by reaching out to others in the same situation. By sharing my story and the knowledge and resources I’ve gained since my cat’s death, I hope I can “paw it forward” and help others who are grieving the loss of their cat.
For additional resources, how to help a grieving friend, and pet memorial ideas, please see the section and links at the end.
Coping with the Loss of a Beloved Fur Friend.
What I Know For Sure
Everyone grieves differently: Some people disappear completely and need solitude to heal their wounds. Others are very expressive in their grief and may post old pictures and reminisce about the qualities they miss in their feline friend. Some people may ask for support publicly, others may reach out in private to seek comfort from people who have been through a similar loss.
There are also many of us that don’t quite know how to process what we are feeling or even how to grieve at all. We may not know how to ask for support, or even know what kind of support we need. Feeling numb is not uncommon, especially at first. Others may feel at peace, knowing the companion they loved and cared for is not suffering and is in a better place. Everything you are feeling is completely valid. Everything.
You may be surprised by how much this loss hurts: Much of the world does not understand how deeply it can hurt to lose an animal companion, so expressing the depth of your feelings can be difficult and it is tempting to try and ignore the pain and just get on with it. But the truth is, our cats are so much a part of our daily lives, their absence can feel like a gaping chasm when they die. We build routines around when to feed them, give them medicine, brush them, and play with them. Some cats even herd their humans towards the bedroom when it’s time for bed! (I’m looking at you Duffy)
Not only that, they are often the only ones that have been there for us through all of our ups and downs, loving us regardless. They meet us at the door when we come home, purr in pleasure at our touch, make sure a meal is never missed, and wake us up with a tap on the nose if we’ve slept too late. Their habits, special needs, and idiosyncrasies become an integral part of our lives.
Experts say there are up to 7 stages of grief, BUT: The experts have lots of pretty graphs and charts that display stages of grief like this one:
When I first saw this, I thought “Whew, I’m already through the first four, only three to go!” But it doesn’t work like that. Grief is messy, you may repeat many of the stages, experience different stages all at once, or think you have finally reached the acceptance stage, only to be shocked again by the fact that your best friend is forever gone from your life. Perhaps your grief won’t look like this lovely infographic at all. For example, you may be sad but at peace with the passing of a pet who lived a wonderful life for many years and passed on without suffering.
Enduring the Loss of Your Cat
I don’t think the loss of any loved one is something you ever get over, but you do grow to accept the new you. The you that has loved and lost. This poem summarizes it beautifully:
I had my own notion of grief.
I thought it was the sad time
That followed the death of someone you love.
And you had to push through it
To get to the other side.
But I’m learning there is no other side.
There is no pushing through.
There is absorption.
And grief is not something you complete,
But rather, you endure.
Grief is not a task to finish
And move on,
But an element of yourself-
An alteration of your being.
A new way of seeing.
A new definition of self.
I would encourage you to process your grief in a way that feels most comfortable for you, but don’t ignore it. Find ways to honor your cat’s memory and find people or a community that understands what you are going through and let them support you.
Volunteering to help cats in need is a productive way to counteract the grief. I have also found it is not uncommon for a grieving cat guardian to adopt a kitty or two in need soon after their pet’s death. You can never replace the cat you’ve lost, nor does adopting a new kitty make the grief go away. But the heart has an amazing capacity to grieve and at the same time grow to create space for a new feline friend. Make the decision to adopt again carefully, but in my experience and in the experience of my friends, adopting another cat can help the healing process.
When I lost my cat Squish, I was devastated and could not get out of bed or go to work. I was plagued by guilt, sure that I had made the wrong choices when it came to her care after her cancer diagnosis and could not bear the thought of my life without her. Here is what helped me:
♥ My friends regularly checked in on me. We cried together and they validated the depth of the grief I was experiencing.
♥ The COI community helped me find meaningful ways to honor Squish’s memory. They wore Team Squish shirts:
They created hashtags and posted pictures on Instagram in her honor, sent flowers and chocolates, presented me with amazing pieces of Squish art:
And they gave me a music box that had her picture and an engraved cat medallion inside:
Their acts of kindness are what brought me back from the edge and helped remind me that Squish was so much more than her death. They helped me focus on her life.
♥ What would Squish want? I began researching grief and reading material that brought me comfort, some of which I have included here. I spent thinking about what happens after death and how Squish would want me to handle her dying. She was an 8lb alpha kitty that put dogs 10 times her size in place with a single look. She loved meeting new people and animals and was affectionate without being needy. I knew in my heart that my little boss of a kitty would not want me to be destroyed by my grief for her. In fact, I imagined she’d be quite offended if I didn’t think of her awesome, incredible life more than I thought of her death. I can almost hear her telling me to stop moping and get on with life. She most certainly would!
♥ I tried to take each day as it came. I clung to the idea that with the passing of time, the huge hole in my heart would heal. And it did. It didn’t happen as fast as I would have liked and there will always be a hole in my heart from her loss, but I can say now, almost three years later, that I can think of Squish and remember her funny mannerisms and the joy she brought me with only a tinge of sadness. I still miss her and there are times when I will feel the pain of her loss like a hot poker to my heart, but for the most part I can look back fondly on her life and enjoy the memories I have of her.
♥ Finding Fergie. A couple of weeks after Squish’s death, I attended a Helping Persian Cats (HPC) event in Santa Monica. I wasn’t really thinking of adopting yet, but thought seeing the volunteers and kitties would cheer me up. There was a cute zottie named Joey there who already had seven applications from potential adopters. Much to my surprise, HPC called me a week later to tell me that Joey’s adoption hadn’t worked out and asked if I thought she’d be a good companion for Duffy. I was slightly hesitant, it had only been three weeks since Squish had passed, but how often does one get offered an Exotic Shorthair Cat? So Joey, now Fergie, found her forever home with me. Fergie was an incredible comfort to me in the coming months and would come running from the other room when she heard me cry. She let me wet her fur with my tears. Learning to love her helped heal my heart and I am so thankful to HPC for making that call.
How I found Comfort
Some people have their faith and the belief in an after-life to comfort them. As someone without those sorts of beliefs, it brought me some comfort to think of Squish as transformed in accordance with the law of the conservation of energy. That the spark that made her so special was now the spark in something else. The following was written for NPR’s All Things Considered:
You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.
You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.
And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.
And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.”
Other poems that brought me comfort:
To Love Again
Oh what unhappy twist of fate
Has brought you homeless to my gate,
The gate where once another stood
To beg for shelter, warmth and food?
For from that day I ceased to be
The master of my destiny,
While she, with purr and velvet paw
Became within my house the law.
She scratched the furniture and shed
And claimed the middle of my bed,
She ruled in arrogance and pride
And broke my heart the day she died.
So if you really think, oh cat
I’d willingly relive all that,
Because you come forlorn and thin
Well don’t just stand there – come on in!
Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep
Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there, I did not die.
My Little Cat Ghost
The years I’ve worn you,
warm upon my shoulder
have led us here —
surprised to find us older.
And there was nothing left
to do today
but hold you close
and help you on your way.
Be still, my little cat,
be well, be free.
I know you’re somewhere new
and loving me.
Recently a friend sent me this poem and It really touched me. Reminding myself that death is a natural part of life, and that nothing is permanent, increases my appreciation for the present moment and all the beauty it contains.
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
Despite the absence of faith or religion in my life, I can’t help but hope that a place exists “across the rainbow bridge” for our pets. I don’t think of this as a scientific fact, but as an emotional one.
The Rainbow Bridge
There is a place beyond the Rainbow Bridge where the animals we have loved go after they have died. There they are restored to health and live as they please.
They do miss us, in their way, but are not at all lonely. You see, they meet up with all of the other animals who were so loved by their humans that they too were able to cross the rainbow bridge.
There they exist without pain or suffering and some people believe that when they die they will see their pets again on the other side.
What do I believe? I think we may meet again, but never as we are here – as human and cat. This makes me value my time with my kitties even more.
In quantum physics, entangled particles remain connected so that actions performed on one affect the other, even when separated by great distances. I hope that somehow, through quantum entanglement or some other type of quantum twining, the pets I love will never truly be lost to me. That we will always stay connected because the particles from which we are made are forever intertwined.
Supporting a Grieving Friend
It can be difficult to know what to do or how to help when a friend is grieving the loss of their cat. Different people may require different types or levels of support. These suggestions are based on my own personal experience.
- Reach out and let them know you are there if they need to talk. Don’t expect them to take you up on the offer, instead keep reaching out and let them know you’d like to check in on them in the following weeks to ask how they are doing, what they are doing to cope, and what if anything they would like to do to memorialize their cat’s life.
- Use their cat’s names and reminisce with them.
- Let them tell the story of their loss. They may need to do this multiple times.
- Share with them your own experience, if you have one, and how you got through it.
- Allow them to grieve, but also help them focus on their cat’s life and how much joy they gained from that relationship.
- Try to stay away from platitudes like “They are in a better place now.” or “They lived a long life.” Instead express your understanding of the pain that they are in and tell them you are there for them and will be there for them. Follow this up with action. Continue to call, text, send emails, or cards to let them know you are thinking of them.
- Whether a cat is old or young, sick, or seemingly healthy – the pain of the loss is the same and so your friend who is mourning the death of their 18 year old cat may need as much support as the one who suddenly lost their three year old cat in a tragic accident.
Pet Memorial Ideas
Providing a tangible way to honor and memorialize a pet’s life is a wonderful way to show your support to a grieving friend. I will add links to actual businesses I’ve used when I can, but keep these pet memorial ideas in mind:
- A locket for their cat’s ashes or fur
- A charm bracelet with a picture of their pet
- An engraved garden stone
- A portrait of their cat done by a favorite artist
- A wind chime with a personal inscription
- An engraved frame with a portrait of their cat
- A shadow box that might include pictures, paw prints, a collar, a favorite toy, and a bit of fur
- A likeness of their pet made out of their pet’s fur
- A book of pictures put together from their cat’s social media account
- A Cuddle Clone
- A favorite poem framed alongside a picture of their cat
- Use ashes or fur from their pet to create decorative stones, paperweights, ornaments or jewelry
Flowers, edible arrangements, fine chocolates, and food gift baskets are also lovely ways to show you care. You might also consider starting a collection to help your friend pay off any outstanding vet bills, or create a donation fund for their favorite pet charity.
The links below that may be helpful for those who have lost pets or know that they may have to put their cherished animal to sleep in the near future:
From Best Friends Animal Society:
If your friend talks about harming themselves or ending their own lives, please urge them to call the national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to SuicidePrevention.org. There are people available to talk with them confidentially online or over the phone 24 hours a day.
Wise Words From the COI Community
@mrbustercat: “I remember the day my dog died, my first death, my dad told me the way I’m feeling now and the reason we cry is because of how great of a love we had for him. And it’s ok to feel such sadness because it’s just evidence of our enormous love. That perspective makes me feel a little better about how devastating it is to lose a pet. It’s only devastating because of how amazing it was to have them.”
@jellikitty: “I think the most important thing when you lose a pet is having others acknowledge your grief and understand the importance of our loved one’s lives.”
@yanksgal23: “For me the only thing that has ever helped was welcoming a new into your home.”
@thepurringtonpost: “We lost our black panfur (Indy) in June. Had a celebration of life dinner in his honor. That helped but still miss him terribly.”
@arthurandbabyeva: “I strongly believe that you don’t get the cat you want, but you get the cat you need [after the loss of your cat]. I know there will be a time when I have to say goodbye to them too, but if I keep my heart open I know there will be a tiny purring soul waiting to fill it.”
@walterbishopthecat: “Support is the key – at least for me when I lost Much and Fauxlivia last year. My friends and family were sympathetic, but the COI community GOT ME and understood the depth of my grief.”
@timmys_sister: “A big thing that helped us was just getting out of the house, especially outdoors. Right after we said goodbye to Timmy we went to the beach and watched the sunset. There were a lot of annoying people around including some jerk flying a drone, but the sunset itself was beautiful. It was a very bittersweet symbolic moment of what had just happened. “
@caly.cat: “I lost my lifetime friend, a beautiful 18 year old “kitten” two years ago. It was like losing a part of me…until I realized that nothing got really lost, as she is still a part of me and lives on in me.”
I would love to hear from you what helped you cope after the loss of a loved one. Leave a comment or send me an email atSquishdelishcats@gmail.com